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Viola Davis’s Regrets About The Help Are a Reminder to Listen to Black Critics

Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Emma Stone in The Help (2011)

In a New York Times article published on Tuesday, Academy Award Winner and living deity Viola Davis spoke about roles she regretted taking, and the one she mentioned was in 2011’s The Help—a film in which she was nominated for an Academy Award, and for which Octavia Spencer took home Best Supporting Actress.

Davis, in the piece, clarifies that she has no ill will for the people in the film or behind it, but that The Help failed as a film because it didn’t have the right voice.

I have, and The Help is on that list. But not in terms of the experience and the people involved because they were all great. The friendships that I formed are ones that I’m going to have for the rest of my life. I had a great experience with these other actresses, who are extraordinary human beings. And I could not ask for a better collaborator than Tate Taylor.

I just felt that at the end of the day that it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard. I know Aibileen. I know Minny. They’re my grandma. They’re my mom. And I know that if you do a movie where the whole premise is, I want to know what it feels like to work for white people and to bring up children in 1963, I want to hear how you really feel about it. I never heard that in the course of the movie.

This line of thinking was followed up by a tweet by Selma director Ava DuVernay, who spoke on the fact that The Help was the last film she worked on as a publicist. DuVernay spoke on how the film and her criticisms of it pushed her to leave PR and tell the stories about black women and black identity that were missing in the culture.

When I first heard and saw this quote from Davis, followed by the tweet from DuVernay, I could instantly take myself back to the moment that Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were nominated for Oscars for this movie. I remember thinking, “I’ll be happy for them, but I wish it wasn’t for this movie.” Viola Davis not becoming the second Black woman to ever win the Best Actress Oscar for playing Aibileen in The Help was a moment of relief for me—not because she wasn’t excellent in the movie, but because the part was not worthy of either her or the acclaim it was getting.

I was only around nineteen when The Help came out, and while I wasn’t as outspoken then as I am now, after reading the book and later watching the film, I just knew something wasn’t right with the story. I did my research and found out that the book’s author, Kathryn Stockett, wrote the story based on her own experience with a black domestic worker. She was also sued by a woman named Ablene Cooper, a longtime nanny for Stockett’s brother who claimed Stockett used her likeness. Stockett claimed she barely knew the woman and the case was eventually thrown out, but it just left a bad taste in my mouth.

The book, much like Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, is a narrative about a white protagonist coming of age, with slavery and civil rights as a backdrop for that character development. It was something black critics were already saying about The Help when it first came out. As Huff Po points out, in 2012, during the film’s Oscar campaign, Roxane Gay wrote a piece in the NY Daily News called  “Bad movie/worse book, Part I: Why The Help is hopeless,” in which she states:

The book, by Kathryn Stockett, was weak in both word and deed—rife with clichés, melodrama and a soupcon of racial uplift through the lens of a white woman. The book has its moments, and is certainly not short on plot. But nothing can overcome the very bad writing. The way the book blithely addresses the complex racial climate of Jackson, Miss., in the 1960s, where the novel is set, is so infuriating as to completely overshadow what few merits it possesses.

The movie is even more infuriating in part due to the movie’s overall competence. Everything looks good. Tate Taylor’s directing is competent. The actors acquit themselves formidably. There is no doubt that everyone involved in the production approached their duties with sincere commitment.
On the big screen, however, the glaring offenses from the book are displayed in high definition, 10 feet high. The misappropriation of black vernacular grates, particularly when Aibileen, one of “the help,” repeatedly tells her young white charge, “You is smart. You is kind. You is important.”

The last line, “You is smart. You is kind. You is important,” is something I teasingly say to my white friends to make them laugh, because the line is so mockable.

So we know that black critics—not all, but some—were saying this and feeling this at the time. So what was the response from non-black viewers? Well, one of the pro-The Help critics I saw was actually from The Young Turks, where they dismissed the criticisms of the film by noted black academic Melissa Harris-Perry.

What always stuck out to me whenwatching this clip, from the moment I saw it, was the way that the hosts’ response boils down to: Well, I didn’t see that. I loved the movie, therefore this stuff isn’t really a problem.

Listen, I loved The Shape of Water, but when disability advocates tell me their thoughts on the movie, I’m not like, “Well yeah, they could have done that, but this was still good.” It’s okay to just let other people, who exist in this space, speak without using your platform to talk down to them in response—especially when you frame yourselves as allies.

It’s okay to say that The Help is written, and mostly for, a non-black audience. That’s not to say that black people can’t enjoy it, or that if you like it, and it’s your favorite movie, and it makes you cry, that’s not OK. That’s awesome. However, that doesn’t make the issues around it go away. When you make movies like this to inform white people “being black was so hard guys,” that’s a narrative that black people are vividly aware of already, so don’t be surprised if we find it lacking in depth.

When black critics are saying it smells funny, even if you don’t agree, maybe you should listen, or at the very least, don’t talk over them.

(via HuffPo, image: Dreamworks)

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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.